Zubaida Ra­sul-Ron­ning ded­i­cated 17 years of her life to sav­ing oth­ers as a United Na­tions Peace­keeper. Sur­viv­ing some of Africa’s most bru­tal guer­rilla wars, she’s now cho­sen the life of or­ganic farm­ing in the UAE. Anthea Ay­ache meets her

Friday - - Contents -

We talk to Zubaida Ra­sul-Ron­ning, a peace­maker-turned-or­ganic farmer.

Zubaida Ra­sul-Ron­ning curled up as best she could on the sin­gle bed, her body heavy with fa­tigue and her mind long­ing for a slice of home. For a fleet­ing mo­ment she al­lowed her thoughts to wan­der to a land of dis­tant mem­o­ries and miles, a place where the sim­ple lux­u­ries of re­lax­ing baths and es­capist nov­els were of­ten taken for granted by most.

A mo­men­tary lapse af­forded by a rare and fleet­ing cease­fire, Zubaida’s thoughts were snatched back by the out­side sounds of re­sum­ing war­fare. RPG bomb ex­plo­sions and AK47 bursts filled the air, snap­ping her back to the re­al­ity of the metal United Na­tions con­tainer in which she was ly­ing, and the harsh re­al­i­ties of her present home, An­gola.

Zubaida was half way through her first post­ing as a UN Peace­keeper, a two-year stint dur­ing the last decade of the West African coun­try’s civil war (1975-2002) fol­low­ing in­de­pen­dence from Por­tu­gal. Work­ing all hours along­side UN mil­i­tary li­ai­son of­fi­cers, she had the thank­less and seem­ingly fruit­less task of en­cour­ag­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a dis­tant peace agree­ment between two fac­tions war­ring for supremacy.

“We worked seven days a week, full time,” she re­counts from Dubai, where she lived un­til she was 12. “We only got leave ev­ery three months and be­cause I was de­ployed at a time be­fore cell phones be­came main­stream, I didn’t talk to my fam­ily for very long pe­ri­ods of time.”

At just 27 years old as a young and am­bi­tious po­lit­i­cal af­fairs of­fi­cer, Zubaida’s daily tasks in­volved at­tempt­ing to con­vince war­ring sides within An­gola’s ru­ral prov­inces not to tar­get civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, a tough task for a con­flict that ul­ti­mately killed more than 500,000 peo­ple and dis­placed a fur­ther one mil­lion.

“We tried to cre­ate an un­der­stand­ing between the war­ring sides not to tar­get in­no­cent peo­ple,” she says. “We were tasked with es­tab­lish­ing humanitarian cor­ri­dors, to pro­vide pro­tec­tion in or­der to in­ves­ti­gate hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, and to in­stil val­ues that pro­tect civil­ians in war. But over there at that time, ev­ery­thing was fair game.”

The hor­ror of An­gola and the scenes that will un­doubt­edly be etched on Zubaida’s mind for years to come, were a far cry from the job the Por­tuguese-Cana­dian had en­vis­aged as a grad­u­ate from The Global Man­age­ment In­sti­tute in Chicago, just three years ear­lier. “Af­ter my MA I worked for Deutsche Bank for two years out of Sin­ga­pore,” says the now Vice Pres­i­dent of Green Grow, a com­pany

‘We tried to cre­ate an un­der­stand­ing between the war­ring sides not to tar­get in­no­cent peo­ple’

look­ing to in­tro­duce or­ganic farm­ing meth­ods to the UAE. “Bank­ing is a good pro­fes­sion, but a sense of ser­vice for my fel­low mankind has always been a mo­ti­vat­ing force in my life. I de­cided there was more to the world and I needed to go and ex­plore it.”

Armed with a need to make the world a more just place, while help­ing to al­le­vi­ate the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, Zubaida aban­doned the glitzy world of per­sonal bank­ing in one of the world’s wealth­i­est coun­tries and em­barked on a ca­reer with Unicef.

“I wasn’t re­ally try­ing to get into Unicef, it just hap­pened,” she says mat­ter-of-factly. “I found my­self vol­un­teer­ing to go to An­gola for peace­keep­ing be­cause I speak flu­ent Por­tuguese. I grew up all over Europe and had short stints with my par­ents in Africa; my fa­ther was head of Siemens at the time and I always trav­elled with my fam­ily.

“When I vol­un­teered for the mis­sion, Africa wasn’t new to me and they were look­ing for peo­ple fit enough to go be­cause at that time it was a real hard­ship duty sta­tion.”

Ac­cept­ing the role, Zubaida’s vol­un­tary post­ing to An­gola would soon re­sult in a United Na­tions ca­reer span­ning 17 years. At 48 years old she has trav­elled the globe, speaks a mul­ti­tude of lan­guages – in­clud­ing Hindi – and, more im­por­tantly, has played a piv­otal role in peace-mak­ing ef­forts across An­gola, the for­mer Yu­goslavia, Iraq, So­ma­lia, Guinea-Bis­sau and DR Congo.

Her ca­reer has bridged in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy and po­lit­i­cal risk as­sess­ment in some of the world’s most in­hos­pitable places, in­clud­ing her sec­ond post­ing in Sara­jevo af­ter the end of the Bos­nian War, a con­flict that was char­ac­terised by vi­cious fight­ing, indis­crim­i­nate shelling of civil­ian strongholds, eth­nic cleans­ing and mass rape.

“There was huge pop­u­la­tion dis­per­sal,” she says. “Peo­ple were ev­ery­where and they’d lost ev­ery­thing. There were so many griev­ances and so much ha­tred at the time. We didn’t just have one role; we had to do ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing we could.”

But it was an­other learn­ing curve for the young civil af­fairs of­fi­cer and it was here, work­ing along­side the dis­placed and the des­ti­tute, that Zubaida was to re­alise the true ethos of the United Na­tions.

“Your brief was ba­si­cally to do what­ever was needed to en­sure the UN’s over­all man­date was car­ried out,” she says. “The UN as an in­sti­tu­tion has val­ues that are over­ar­ch­ing. We always had to see the larger pic­ture and out there the peo­ple de­ployed em­body global val­ues. It’s re­ally im­por­tant to know, how­ever, that yes the work of the UN is done in Europe – but it is man­i­fested in the field.”

With a clear will to fight for the ba­sic hu­man rights of oth­ers but in need of a break away from a ca­reer en­trenched in the hor­rors of war, Zubaida was called back to HQ in New York where she would spend sev­eral years sup­port­ing coun­try teams in Su­dan, Iraq, So­ma­lia, Dji­bouti and Oc­cu­pied Pales­tinian Ter­ri­to­ries. Her re­mit in­cluded draft­ing humanitarian re­sponses on women’s em­pow­er­ment as well as the elim­i­na­tion of con­flict-re­lated vi­o­lence, specif­i­cally sex­ual vi­o­lence against women and girls.

Sit­ting at a desk, how­ever im­por­tant in the grand scheme of peace, was not for Zubaida and be­fore long she found her­self de­ployed again to An­gola. This time, in 2002, she was there to as­sist the Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral.

“It was very suc­cess­ful and ev­ery­thing was done ac­cord­ing to plan so we were able to close on time,” she says. “Of course, there were rem­nant is­sues like hu­man rights and democrati­sa­tion but those are things that ev­ery coun­try has to

‘We always had to see the larger pic­ture, and out there the peo­ple de­ployed em­body global val­ues’

grap­ple with af­ter years of war. There is always a lot to re­cover from.”

Slowly yet suc­cess­fully mak­ing her way to the top ranks at one of the most pres­ti­gious public sec­tor in­sti­tu­tions in the world came at no easy price for Zubaida.

“I re­mem­ber liv­ing in my car for a year!” she laughs.

“Of­ten we were pro­vided with half a [UN] con­tainer we shared with a col­league. The con­tain­ers are turned into a live­able space; you get a bed, a chair and a lamp. You are sup­posed to find your own ac­com­mo­da­tion but imag­ine do­ing that in some­where like East­ern DR Congo!”

“We had some tough deals when it came to find­ing a place to live, but you know we were happy to be work­ing in the UN and con­tribut­ing to peace. I won’t lie though: some­times it was dif­fi­cult to cope.”

Sta­tioned in DR Congo, a place that is at the heart of what can be termed Africa’s world war, and a coun­try that is still gripped by a humanitarian dis­as­ter, left its mark on Zubaida. Sta­tioned there for more than three-and-a-half years as a se­nior po­lit­i­cal af­fairs of­fi­cer, she was wit­ness to a con­flict that claimed at least three mil­lion lives and de­spite a cease­fire be­ing ten­ta­tively up­held by UN forces, peo­ple lived in fear of militias and the army.

When asked if she ever feared for her life, Zubaida an­swers, “We have all been in that sit­u­a­tion where you in­vol­un­tar­ily be­come a hostage to the sit­u­a­tion. You go some­where think­ing you will be do­ing one thing, and then the cir­cum­stances around that meet­ing change and you find your­self in dan­ger. We have all been held to gun­point but does that in­hibit us from car­ry­ing on? No, we ne­go­ti­ate our way out, that’s what we are trained to do.”

And sharp ne­go­ti­a­tion skills are tan­ta­mount to hold­ing a weapon when out in the field, as Zubaida ac­knowl­edges “You are civil­ian per­son­nel; you don’t have pro­tec­tion, you are not armed. As peace­keep­ers you just carry the ban­ner and hope peo­ple will re­spect that. We stand be­hind the in­signia of the UN when we are out in the field.”

That trust how­ever is some­thing that is slowly be­com­ing less and less ad­hered to as militias, rebels and armies the world over in ar­eas of con­flict in­creas­ingly fail to re­spect the tra­di­tional rules of the those who choose to work the world’s re­mote and hos­tile lands. Zubaida has spent the past few years grap­pling with sub­se­quent ill­nesses and has just re­cov­ered from a year and a half stint of med­i­cal treat­ment.

“Yes, I was phys­i­cally en­dan­gered at times but I have def­i­nitely be­come sick as a re­sult of my job. I have had cere­bral malaria; I’ve had ex­treme malaria I have been in hos­pi­tal many, many times.”

Yet de­spite all the risks, dan­ger and po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence, Zubaida formed a ca­reer-long at­tach­ment to Africa and al­though she has suf­fered long-term as a con­se­quence, her will for global sta­bil­ity re­mains.

“I be­lieve that Africa some­times seems far away to peo­ple,” she says, “but un­til we sort out all th­ese la­cu­nas of in­sta­bil­ity in the world we re­ally can’t move to­wards a global well-be­ing.”

Now with the UN be­hind her and years of con­flict man­age­ment un­der her belt, Zubaida has cho­sen to take a calmer ap­proach to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place. Mar­ried to a Nor­we­gian, and having re­cov­ered from a de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness, she is throw­ing her­self into a new en­vi­ron­men­tal ven­ture to make soils in the GCC more fruit­ful through the use of or­ganic fer­tiliser.

“Once I felt well enough I sat down and thought ‘what can I do next?’. That is what brought about my new ven­ture, Green Grow – an idea to com­mer­cialise or­ganic tech­nol­ogy as a vi­able op­tion to tra­di­tional and per­haps harm­ful tech­nol­ogy.

“My per­sonal con­tri­bu­tion to­wards serv­ing hu­man­ity in the realm of peace­keep­ing has fin­ished but I knew I had to look for an­other way to make a dif­fer­ence.”

And with au­thor­i­ties in the UAE farm­ing in­dus­try tak­ing in­ter­est, it seems she may not be wrong.

‘We have all been held to gun­point but does that in­hibit us from car­ry­ing on? No, we ne­go­ti­ate’

UN or jour­nal­is­tic neu­tral­ity. “The dis­re­spect ac­tu­ally be­gan a while ago,” she says, “with the blow­ing up of the UN HQ in Bagh­dad af­ter the First Gulf War; many ofmy col­leagues were killed but it didn’t end there, af­ter it was Abuja, then So­ma­lia. There have been lots of at­tacks and the fre­quency is in­creas­ing.”

As tes­ta­ment to stark changes in the world she adds “[at­tacks on per­son­nel] won’t in­hibit peo­ple go­ing back out there but I note there is a big change in the world about how the UN is viewed and the moral au­thor­ity that the UN car­ries has changed”.

De­spite the ob­vi­ous dan­gers in­volved with work­ing in ar­eas of con­flict, it is the not so well doc­u­mented risks that also threaten

Zubaida meets a lo­cal ac­tivist who helped women to pro­tect them­selves against sex­ual abuse in a re­mote part of DR Congo

She has also worked with peo­ple in Tan­za­nia

In 2007 Zubaida met the then Min­is­ter of De­fence of the DR Congo as part of her work with the UN

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